Starting my Experiment on Productivity

Over the past several months, I have been almost obsessed in productivity. Since I started running my own businesses, I have found that, while I have accomplished a lot, I have by no means been performing at the level in which I would like to. If I had, I would be much further along with my long-term goals, have more money, and have a lot less work-related stress.

In an effort to battle the need to become more productive, I have spent a lot of time reading (actually, listening to) books on productivity. There have been several that I have read, but the one that has had the most impact on how I view things is Deep Work, by Cal Newport. This book, at a high level teaches you to focus on “Deep” or meaningful work that is conducive to your goals, and eliminate distractions and busywork as much as possible.

After reading this, and a few others. I set a goal of getting 4 billable hours of work done a day. In reality this wasn’t a hard goal and, when accomplished, I can make a lot of money. Unfortunately, this goal is flawed; I have been working on 4 hours of billable work, but not meaningful work, so while I was able to get work done that makes progress, I was still having the issue of meeting deadlines and goals. This has set me back to the drawing board.

Designing an Experiment

I do not have the answer as to what will make me more productive, but I do have some hypothesis that I will be testing out. I also think they have a high probability of giving me some success.

One thing to consider, is that productivity is hard to measure. Not all hours are created equal, while I can do an hour of billable work and get my hourly rate, there are some hours that I can do things that have an astronomically higher payoff. For example, if I spend an hour working on a proposal for a potential project. Assuming I win the bid, that could mean thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in profit long term. With my previous mindset, it isn’t billable time, so doing proposals got pushed back to the end of the day. I am not sure how I will quantify my productivity just yet, but I know that I will be able to measure how effective these experiments are, which I can then see the impact on my life.

Slaying the Email Beast

Email has been the literal bane of my existence for the past several months. As I take on more projects and responsibilities, inevitably more emails come in. If I can pinpoint the one biggest stresser in my workday, it is dealing with emails. I literally get hundreds of emails a day that need my direct attention. Instead of dealing with them in sweeps (I am a huge subscriber and proponent of Inbox Zero), I let them pile up and neglect addressing even the important ones. I also keep my email client running all day, so I get distracted whenever a new email comes in. This then breaks my focus, and, can potentially stress me out if it is some new demand or issue that comes to me unexpectedly.

My first step here is to simply turn my email client off. If it is not there, front-and-center, I can’t be distracted by it. I know that I have a physical urge to check and see my unread messages, but I need to condition myself not to. While I know people can get away with checking their email once a day, I would be thrilled if I can do so every hour or two. When then go through my inbox, I will achieve Inbox Zero every time – following my pseudo GTD methodology of dealing with emails. If I can respond/implement the task in less than 2 minutes, do it right away. If it takes more than 2 minutes – create a task on my list and archive the message. I then can go through my list periodically throughout the day/week and schedule them to be accomplished when they realistically fit in.

To Summarize:

Goal: Check email every 1-2 hours
Expected Results: Less stress over email, and less distractions during my workday. I will feel more in control.

Going Distraction Free

Ah, distractions… these happen all of the time. Some are in my control, others are not. Hangouts, Slack, calls/texts, people around me, the list can go on and on. One of the key things noted in Deep Work is to try to eliminate distractions so you can focus. Here is the thing; I work from Indy Hall, a very busy coworking space where distractions are not only common, but encouraged. I can try to eliminate all of the digital distractions in the world, but there will always be physical things that take away from my attention. And i’m ok with that, if I wasn’t – then Indy Hall isn’t the place where I should be working from.

The good news is, that I do have some control over this. The first thing I need to do is figure out a solution to minimize the virtual distractions. While it may seem like a logical idea to turn off slack, silence my phone, and become a digital hermit for hours at a time, it’s not feasible for me. There are people who work for me, clients who need my attention, and legitimate emergencies that people need to be able to get in touch with me for. What I need to figure out is a way to differentiate between communication that can realistically be responded to at a later time, and things that truly do require my immediate attention.

I think what I want to do is figure out a way to create a digital “panic button” that will allow people to get in touch with me if it is a time sensitive issue, and turn off notifications for everything else. This would essentially mean me putting Slack in do not disturb mode, and possibly create a command in slack /emergency {message} which would create a notification that pushes to my phone/mac. I would then create something similar with an email reply, contact form, or something. This would allow me to turn off many of the digital distractions from my day that can wait until later.

To Summarize:

Goal: Turn off as many digital distractions as possible, while still creating a way for me to be contacted in emergencies.
Expected Results: I think there will be an adjustment period to disconnecting, but once that happens, I will find it much easier to stay focused.

Putting this to the Test

Since productivity is such a hard thing to measure, I have came up with a good way to see if I can actually get more done in less time – i’m going to learn a new skill. I have been putting off continuing my engineering studies for years becasue I valued “actual” work as more important. To put all of this to the test, i’m gong to dedicate meaningful time 3-5 days a week towards expanding my knowledge as a software engineer. My plan is to apply the test above, continue my plan of study, and see where I am in a month. Hopefully, I will be able to get all of my work done, spend make significant progress in my studies, and do so in the same amount of time or less than I currently spend working. This will give me more time to do whatever I want.

I will then go and test some more productivity ideas and see how they affect me.